Book Review: Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying

Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying by Light Watkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


First off, there’s no way to know whether the author’s given name is a pun. If it’s deliberate, I hate him. If it’s not, I pity him, and it sucks that his birth name is Light, but when you’re dealt that kind of hand I suppose you have to become a meditation guru.

That said, he’s down-to-earth, for a guru. Watkins disavows the old, traditionalist machinery of meditation where you need to contort your body into the least comfortable positions available to maximize your Enlighteniness and really just compound the hell out your chi. Meditation is meditation, even if you’re in a recliner with your dog in your lap. Just get comfortable and focus on not focusing on anything. Your mind will wander, that’s fine. When it does, notice it, follow the thread of thought to its natural conclusion, and bring your focus back to your mantra (which for Light is a subverbal AHH-HUM sound) or your breath. Repeat for 10-minute increments, no more than twice a day.

Watkins peppers the book with personal anecdotes, like when he wussed out of going skinny dipping with four hotties back in his glory days. Really humanized the dude. A good book that makes meditation more approachable for people who aren’t trying to be full-on Buddhas.



View all my reviews

Book Review: Zen in the Art of Archery

Zen in the Art of ArcheryZen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A German professor of philosophy gets a job teaching Kant in Japan back in the 1920s, and decides, while he’s there, to look into this Zen business, see what all the hubbub is about. He asks a bunch of natives “How do I get into this Zen thing?” and they all look around, embarrassed, and assure him that he wouldn’t like it because he’s foreign.

Now, you’ve gotta understand, this is before the Beatniks. You couldn’t just smoke mids and Kerouac off in the back of train then claim you’d achieved Nirvana. There was a system, and whenever our professor asked anyone about it, they assured him it was a system of systemlessness, or something equally incomprehensible to his precise prewar German academic mind.

Undeterred, Doc Herrigel keeps demanding Japanese natives teach him to Zen. Eventually somebody cracks and tells him, “You’re not gonna get it. Your only hope is getting involved in one of the traditional Zen arts, and learning Zen by osmosis.” He looks at swordsmanship, martial arts, flower arrangement, and archery, then decides on archery because he was pretty good with a rifle back in the Motherland. It’s probably the same, right?

It is not the same.

He joins up with a Daishadokyo master and begins his agonizing six-year journey toward being kind of good with a bow. Daishadokyo is to Kyūdō, or traditional Japanese archery, as the Spanish Inquisition is to the US Census: they’re both going through the same motions, but one is religious and far more motivated.

From there it follows the formula of every Zen chronicle or kung fu movie montage: The master tells him to do the thing, then stands by and watches as he ballses it up repeatedly and painfully. The master says nothing. The student asks whining questions in an effort to hurry to “the goal” and the master smiles serenely and tells him to keep doing the thing.

Eventually, Herrigel modifies his grip (“I found a better way to do it!”) and surprises his master with a few competent shots. The master is insulted by Herrigel’s attempt to cheat him, and tells him to never darken his door again. Herrigel prostrates himself and begs forgiveness, the master magnanimously grants same, then tells him, “now do the thing”.

For these six years, Herrigel is grappling nonstop with what Zen might potentially be, and how far he feels from getting it. He loses faith. He has doubts. He thinks about quitting a bunch, but he idolizes the master too much to go through with it. Eventually, when he’s going through the motions, the master’s like “That’s it! Nailed it!”

Herrigel releases a mighty “HOOTY HOO!” of triumph, at which point the master recoils in revulsion.

“You can’t be excited about succeeding,” he said. “That’s not Zen. You’re getting your gross ego-grease all over the archery.”

Herrigel is like “A thousand pardons, senpai.”

Master is like, “Now do the thing.”

Eventually, Herrigel manages to get automatic enough in his archery that he gets an inkling of Zen, and the arrow shoots itself. His life is changed. We did it, fellas.

Good book. Good Zen story. I ugly-laughed at the little swordmaster koan at the end, paraphrased as follows:

Young man seeks out swordmaster in his hermitage, says, “teach me to the be the next hokage”. Swordmaster says, “Sure”, and makes him do all of his chores. The kid is the swordmaster’s butler for like a year, making rice, sweeping the dirt floor, washing his stank-ass socks, before he hits his limit and demands the swordmaster teach him swordmastery, damnit! That’s what I’m here for!

Swordmaster says, “Sure”. Everything is the same, though now the swordmaster will unexpectedly hit the kid with a stick as he does the chores. These beatings continue for another year or so, until one day, the swordmaster is facing the fire, working on frying up some eggs. The kid recognizes this as his chance. He grabs the whuppin’ stick, sneaks up on his sensei, and KIYAAAAA brings it down on the back of his head!

Swordmaster blocks effortlessly with the pan full of eggs.

The kid is like “oh shit. I thought this was just weird old man sadism, but you were for real this whole time.” And thus, he gets a little nugget of Zen.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Happiness Hypothesis

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient WisdomThe Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Half autobiography, half psych 101 class. Haidt revisits all the psychology experiments you’ve already heard about and ties them together with snippets of philosophers, most of whom you’ve also already heard of, then talks about either being in college, teaching at college, or going to India (for research. for college.)

He’s a respectable social psychologist which is almost like being a scientist, and the book is written clearly and accessibly. There are conflicting schools of thought as to where happiness comes from. Obviously, money can’t buy it, or why would they keep saying “money can’t buy happiness” all the time? They must have gotten it from somewhere. Everybody wants it, nobody knows how to get it.

Haidt suggests it’s a sort of combination of coming from within and coming from without. You’ve got to cultivate your internal rock garden, if you’re Buddhist, or your inner citadel, if you’re more an Aurelius kind of guy. You’ve got to manage expectations and be grateful for what you’ve got. You’ve definitely got to drop that goddamn attitude, I’ll tell you that right now. Also, you’ve got to adopt a moral code and stick to it. You’ll feel better if you do. You’ll be living in accordance with your virtues, and in Current Year we don’t have codified morals or virtues, so nobody knows how to act and it makes them miserable and neurotic.

You’ve also got to stop working all the time and spend more of your time with family and friends. Family especially. You’ve got to make time for hobbies and live within your means, even if that requires you to adjust your stupid daydreams about Lamborghinis and cocaine to something a little cheaper, that could actually contribute to a sense of fulfillment. Waste your money on experiences, not things.

In theory, you follow these rules, as confirmed by both modern psychologists and long-dead Romans, and you should be able to land proper happiness for yourself. But remember. This is just a hypothesis.

See? Practically a scientist.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Zen Path Through Depression

The Zen Path Through DepressionThe Zen Path Through Depression by Philip Martin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Since zen is basically stoicism but further East, and CBT is essentially a cut-and-paste job of stoicism, it tracks that you can use zen to get through depression, too. Less journaling and self-critique, more listening to birds, roughly the same amount of meditation, but all roads lead to Rome. Or to China, in this case.

View all my reviews

Yea, I’m into BDSM: Beatitude, Dharma, Stupas, and Moderation

October 8, 2017. Sedona, Arizona.

What the hell is a Buddhist Stupa, you may ask?

I suspect you may, because I certainly was, and by all accounts I should have known. In the five lost years I spent between high school and college doing sketchy blue collar work, abusing substances, and reading, I cleared entire shelves on Zen (and astrology but like, I’m not as proud of that one). I know more paradoxical riddles and methods of sitting real still than you could shake a shit-stick at. I also grifted my way through a grad course for my philosophy minor called “Special Topics: American Buddhism”, but that was chiefly just reading monotonous Alan Watts excerpts and arguing with communists.

Why they always gotta make it about the state, anyway? I’m just tryna talk about buddhanature and have a good time, it doesn’t always need to be civic responsibility and the plight of the proletariat. Besides, Buddha straight up said “the most important thing is to do good work”! Even Buddha’s telling you to get a job!

Sorry. I digress.

Two miles off the highway, through a residential area with street names like “Moondrop Ave” and “Allegra Drive” and the equally thematic “Splendor Court”, I found the dirt pull off for a ‘tranquility park’ that I am, quite frankly, too Western to remember the name of. I parked the car and shuffled up the path to the park proper, passing a shoeless nine-year-old girl who was discernibly closer to enlightenment than I have ever been.

The Stupa itself was a 36-foot tall pink monument with an alcove near the top housing, you guessed it, Buddha. A path was worn into the ground around it designating the meditative circle you were supposed to take while contemplating that good loving-kindness. Stupas function as compassion batteries, absorbing all the good vibes from decent, outwardly-projecting Buddhists, amplifying them, and broadcasting them across the world in an effort to cleanse the karma of all living beings. Only a Buddhist can say “#all lives matter” and really mean it, but they wouldn’t because of the douche factor.

22280073_148735825731319_3217237307102855168_n

In a little pavilion next to the stupa was a man and three generations of women, all sitting cross-legged and listening to him tell a story in a gentle, nonthreatening voice. He was definitely moving in on the cute daughter, and she was definitely into it. Next to their gathering was some Vegan chow, a plastic baggy full of graham crackers that someone had covered in birdseed.

“Not very compassionate,” I chided to myself, realizing my internal monologue was being, well, a bastard. “This karma needs cleanin’.”

I did three laps of the Stupa and touched it, got my cosmic tally reset, then spun a couple of prayer wheels. As I understand, prayer wheels do the same thing the stupa does, but in a little burst when you spin it. Think of it like an automatic car. You press the pedal and the rpms gradually go up. Stomp the pedal and for a second your rpms’ll jump to 6k and your engine will scream. It’s like that, but with understanding and kindness.

prayerwheels

Prayer flags hung from the trees all around the walking meditation trail, and little shrines to Buddha were decorated with colored stones and flat, stacked rocks. These little cairns serve the same purpose as the greater and better organized stupa, but more localized; each stone functions as a prayer to impart blessings on the stacker and their loved ones, with the implication that the balance of the stones mirrors the desired harmony of the stacker’s life.

It was a nice place. Very peaceful. The boundaries were ill-defined, so at one point I accidentally wandered outside of the park and a quarter mile into the desert. Luckily, somebody in the peace park lit a joint and I followed the smell back. I walked in on a cadre of young ladies with an older woman, howling like wolves in the center of a mandala. It was some sort of prayer for friendship. It made sense. Wolves make good friends.

The Girl was blowing up my phone, insisting that the Buddhist would close the parking gate and lock us in the stupa if we weren’t out by 6. I hit the Buddha with one of the mudras I remembered from my Zen days, then followed the Friend Wolf Sisterhood out to the parking lot, escaped before they sealed us in, and made a b-line for Phoenix.

22280678_317428338729623_2321464367909961728_n.jpg
haha gottem

We attempted to order a pizza from a place next to the hotel called Mellow Mushroom. Just one. The girl on the phone didn’t know any part of her job, so I’m hopeful that she was new.

“Hello, Mellow Mushroom, I don’t know what’s on our menu or how much anything costs, how can I realistically help you?”

Eventually I mined her for enough data to conclude that they had a “house special” which is what any other pizza joint would call a supreme. They clotted it with every available meat, which struck even an unrepentant carnivore like me as excessive. I had them remove the ground beef. The total for one supreme pizza was $30, or which translates to 120 chicken nuggets or 10 parking spaces on Vortex Hill, so I cancelled the order and found a Little Caesars attached to a beer store. Dinner was a pepperoni Hot ‘n’ Ready and a six-pack of PBR. Bone apple teeth.